A Visit to Nanzen-ji (and the Abbot’s Garden)

Originally established during the late 13th century, Nanzen-ji remains one of Kyoto’s preeminent Rinzai Zen (Buddhist) Temples and a popular destination for tourists as well as local Japanese visitors.

16E25 Sanmon (distance)

The temple’s enormous entry gate, called the Sanmon, dates to 1628 and honors the memory of those who died in one of Japan’s many civil wars.

16E25 Nanzenji sanmon

Nanzen-ji’s precincts house a number of smaller temples, as well as the famous “Abbot’s Garden” located adjacent to the Hōjō, or Abbot’s quarters. Although admission to the garden requires payment of a separate fee (there is no fee for admission to the primary grounds, or viewing the Sanmon, but there are fees for entering various parts of the temple grounds), fans of Japanese gardens and traditional landscape art will find the Hōjō worth the price of admission (about $3).

After passing by the Abbot’s home, visitors enter the garden itself. The initial view of the garden consists mainly of a lovely, lily-pad covered pond surrounded by beautiful examples of a traditionally-landscaped garden.

16E26 hojo pond

Following the path to the left, past the Abbot’s house, we paused in front of a small sub-shrine nestled along the back side of the house at the edge of the garden.

16E26 subshrine

A little farther along, a waterfall burbled down the side of the hill.

16E25 Hojo Waterfall

From the back of the garden path, you can barely see the abbot’s residence through the trees:

16E25 Hojo garden

A walk through the garden takes between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on your pace and the amount of time you spend enjoying the view. Our visit took a bit longer, because I stopped to enjoy the scenery (as well as taking photographs) and to experience the natural “silence” (burbling water, rustling leaves, and occasional splashing koi) instead of hurrying through. 

If you find yourself in Kyoto, with time to spare, I highly recommend a visit to Nanzen-ji with a stop in the Abbot’s Garden.

16E25 Nanzenji toro

Do you prefer silent, peaceful gardens or busy urban sights? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



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The Benefits of Copyright Registration

In the United States, copyright protection for creative works attaches to qualifying works (like novels) automatically at the time of the work’s creation. Formal registration is not required to create a copyright in an author’s work – however, registration does provide important benefits. For that reason, authors should ensure their creative works are properly copyrighted, preferably within three months after initial publication.

The issue of copyright registration should be addressed in every publishing contract. Authors should know whether the contract obligates the publisher to register copyright, and if not, the author should arrange for registration of the work himself (or herself).

When is a work “published” for copyright registration purposes?

In order to ensure maximum copyright protection (and the availability of statutory damages and attorney fee recovery in case of infringement), copyrights should be registered with the U.S. copyright office within three months after initial publication. Publishing an excerpt on your blog does not constitute “publication” but if you publish your entire novel online, serially or otherwise, it is “published” for copyright purposes. The copyright act does not distinguish between print and electronic publishing, or between traditional and self-publishing — “publication” applies to every available form or format. Also: note that a work is “published” even if the author releases it free of charge.

For electronic works, the publication date is the date the work becomes available for download (or available to read online in its entirety) – for a fee or for free – on the first authorized sale or download site.

For printed works, the publication date is the date the book releases in printed format.

You do not need to register twice, if a book is available in print and ebook format – but the date of “publication” is the date the first format becomes available for sale (or download).

What are the benefits of formal copyright registration?

1.  Placing the world on notice of ownership. Registration tells the world who owns the work (and claims the rights associated with ownership). Although intent is not an element of copyright infringement, registration makes it harder for infringers to claim “they didn’t know.” Registration also helps with  licensing, by documenting the owner’s identity in a formal way.

2.  Statutory damages and attorney fees. If a work is registered within three months after its initial publication, the author is eligible to claim special money damages, and recover attorney fees, in a successful lawsuit against infringers. If the work isn’t registered, the infringer can be forced to stop, but those special damages and attorney fees may not be available.

3.  The ability to sue for infringement. Registration of the work is a mandatory prerequisite for filing a lawsuit against an infringer.

4. An easier test for infringement. If copyright is registered within five years after the work’s initial publication date, the registration is “prima facie” evidence that the copyright is valid. This means that the author can prove ownership in court by producing evidence of registration, and the defendant has a much harder time defending against a claim of infringement. This is a powerful legal benefit for an author. 

Have questions about this or other copyright topics? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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How to Conquer the Fear of Pitching Your Novel

Many authors find pitching scary, whether they’re talking to editors and agents or to readers. Sometimes, this fear (or nerves, if you prefer) is responsible for the pitch running far too long and becoming convoluted. Often, authors think they need to read the pitch off a card or “cheat sheet,” to keep themselves from forgetting critical elements.

Nervousness, the “need to read” and stress-induced over-complication of pitches are symptoms of the same problem, and today we’ll talk about how to overcome it.

Tip #1: Write a Strong, SHORT, Pitch That Can Be Delivered in a Single Sentence. 

If the pitch is too long, too complex, or too hard to remember, delivering it will always be more stressful. Crafting a quality, one-sentence pitch that hooks the reader does take time and effort (often hours’ worth), but it’s critical to successful pitching of an author’s work. Spend as many hours as it takes to write a high-quality, one-sentence pitch – and then get feedback from readers and other writers.

Tip #2: Memorize the (One-Sentence) Pitch For Your Novel, And Practice It Until It Feels Completely Natural.

If the pitch is too complex or too difficult to memorize, you haven’t finished revising it. Go back to the drawing board and edit, revise, and rework it until it rolls smoothly off the tongue. Commit your pitch to memory, and practice it until it flows naturally when you deliver it – and let your passion for your work show in the delivery.

Many authors panic at the thought of pitching without a cheat sheet. You spent months or years writing this work. You can remember what it’s about. The point of a single-sentence pitch is that you don’t need a cheat sheet – you’re starting a conversation, not giving a TED talk.

Tip #3: Practice your pitch in front of “things with eyes” before you try it on real people.

Many people have a fear of speaking in public, or to strangers. One way to ease into the process is practicing the pitch in front of LEGO men, stuffed animals, or similar inanimate “things with eyes.” Pets make excellent practice audiences also. Practicing in front of a non-human audience can help build confidence until you’re ready to try in front of real people.

Tip #4: Move up to practicing in front of people – family, friends, and other (supportive) authors.

Ask the audience for feedback, or to role-play a conversation with an editor or agent. You can also ask someone to film you (or film yourself) to see the pitch from the audience perspective. When people offer feedback, don’t dismiss it. Even if you disagree, ask yourself why they believe the critique is true. Something in your delivery (or pitch) made the listener react; your job is to figure out why, and adjust if necessary.

Tip #5: Remember that editors and agents who take pitches actually do want to hear about acquire new projects.

Most people want to hear your pitch, as long as it’s short and sweet. What people don’t want to hear is lengthy, convoluted backstory-logged explanation read off a page. That’s not a pitch.

Tip #6: Do your research in advance, and pitch only editors and agents who want to hear about books of your type and genre.

No matter how much you might want to publish with a given publisher, or work with a certain agent, your work must be a fit or the pitch will fail.

If you write a stellar one-sentence pitch, work up confidence with practice, and choose the right people to pitch, you can overcome fear. For some authors, pitching will always be stressful, but with time, practice, and preparation it does get easier.

Now, get out there and nail that pitch.

And here’s your seahorse palate-cleanser:

16E18 PubLaw Seahorse

Today, it’s Vega, peeking out from behind the sea fans. Seahorses are timid by nature, but given time and opportunity they get more confident with the camera. Let her confidence inspire you!


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Corals Are Smarter Than You Think.

Reefkeeping poses many challenges, chief among them the need to integrate species that live in different natural environments–sometimes thousands of miles apart–and although good reef keepers know to stock only compatable species within a single tank, sometimes even compatable fish and corals need to learn how to get along.

16E16 seahorse on sea fan

Many people think corals are “plants,” but in reality corals are complex animals (sometimes, colonies of animals). Although they look and behave quite differently from the terrestrial quadrupeds, amphibians, and birds we usually think of when someone says “animals,” corals are animals all the same.

16B15 Lazarus

Some corals are photosynthetic, others eat plankton, and others eat larger, meaty foods (including fish — another reason to be careful what you stock in your captive reef). Since corals lack eyes, brains, and complex nervous systems, they react to the environment immediately and without considering consequences. Some sting, while others produce and release toxins. While most of the corals I stock don’t take a toxic approach to unwanted interference, they do withdraw their polyps, “shrink” and show their displeasure when something upsets them.

16E16 weeble on sea fan

A difficult situation, since my primary reef inhabitants have a tendency to grab and clutch at everything around them.

16D16 Moya and Magellan 2

But, as it turns out, corals are intelligent–at least in a Pavlovian sense. They can distinguish between an aggressive or dangerous touch and one that means no harm. Without eyes, or brains, or advanced nervous systems, these delicate creatures quickly learn the difference between a seahorse’s tail and other kinds of interference.

They’ve also figured out that porcelain crabs won’t hurt them (though the crabs will pull a meaty dinner right out of a coral’s mouths if they get the chance).

16E16 small crab in yellow coral (extended)

Curiously, the corals had to learn about crabs separately from seahorses. The two don’t feel the same when they grab, and the corals didn’t recognize the crabs as a “friendly touch” at first.

It only takes the corals about a week to stop closing up and shrinking away from these acceptable touches…and yet, even corals I’ve had for years will still close up immediately if I brush them with my hand.

16E16 crabs in sea finger

The next time you look at corals, consider: not only are they animals–often carnivorous, and capable of stinging or poisoning intruders in their territory–but corals are also capable of learning to recognize and accept non-threatening creatures in their environment.

16E16 vega on sea finger

An interesting perspective shift, indeed.

Have you ever kept corals, or seen them in their natural environment? What species do you like best?


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Waraku-an, Nijo Castle’s Teahouse and Garden

Last summer’s research trip to Kyoto took me to Nijo Castle, a shogun’s palace constructed on the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Construction commenced in 1601, although the palace was not completed until 1626. 

16E15 Nijo Castle

The northernmost part of the castle grounds hold decorative gardens and a teahouse called Wakaru-an.

16E15 Waraku-an from entrance

Admission to Nijo Castle gives visitors access to Wakaru-an, but only if they purchase tea (or snacks) in the teahouse adjacent to the garden. Since I feel an attachment to the garden, we decided to head inside.

Large hedges fronted by decorative stones block the garden and teahouse from passersby;

16E15 Nijo garden rock

The only way to see the spectacular garden surrounding the teahouse is to enter through an old roofed gate and take the path to the teahouse. A polite employee stands outside to let visitors know that entrance is only for teahouse patrons:

16F16 Wakaru-an attendant

Once inside, you can stay as long as you like to enjoy your tea. I had a traditional matcha drink, along with sweetened mochi (pounded rice cake). My son had matcha, too, but chose a chocolate cake instead. (He likes mochi, but thought he’d try something different so we didn’t duplicate.)

The teahouse at Wakaru-an offers indoor and outdoor seating; since the weather was nice, we opted for the bench outside the teahouse. Here’s the view:

16E15 Waraku-an 

Wakaru-an holds special significance for me as a writer. My second Hiro Hattori novel, Blade of the Samurai, contains a scene where my ninja detective, Hiro, must infiltrate the shogun’s palace by sneaking over the wall. The place where I chose to send him in, and the garden he sneaks through on his approach to the palace, is Wakaru-an (minus the pond, which would have been too much of an inconvenience).

16E15 Waraku-an departure

In June 1565, when the novel takes place, the shogun’s palace was actually located in a different location, and likely had a different layout, than Nijo Castle. However, neither my research nor that of a Kyoto-based historian I enlisted uncovered a map of the shogun’s palace as it existed I’m Hiro’s day. (This is hardly surprising–the shogun’s palace burned on several locations, and a map would have been a security risk so few of them were made while the palaces existed.) The novel sets the shogun’s palace in the correct location, but uses a modified form of the Nijo Castle map, in part to allow a reader who visits Nijo Castle to actually walk the “shogun’s palace grounds” as they exist in Blade of the Samurai.

I enjoyed my visit to this traditional teahouse, and the snacks. If you’re ever in Kyoto, and have the chance, I highly recommend a stop at Wakaru-an.

Have you visited Nijo Castle? If you did, would you stop for tea?


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Since it’s Friday, I’m sharing some excellent news:


My publisher, Seventh Street Books, is sponsoring a Goodreads giveaway of 20 free advance review copies of THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER - meaning, if you win one, you can read it before it’s available in stores!


Here’s the link – click here to enter.

All you have to do is click through to Goodreads and click the entry button! (You do need a Goodreads account to enter, but they’re free and Goodreads isn’t a spammy sort of site, if you’re not already registered there.)

The contest runs through May 23, but don’t wait! Enter now…and I hope you win!

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Crafting Elevator Pitches, Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the elements of a winning logline-style elevator pitch. Today, we’re looking more closely at how to apply them and craft the pitch itself.

To recap, the elements you’re looking for are your novel’s protagonist, active antagonist, stakes, and high concept. And remember: the high concept might or might not make it into your pitch, but you need to keep it in mind.

Remember, also, that a logline pitch is merely the start of a conversation with an editor, agent, or reader. For that reason, it shouldn’t be long – a single sentence, or a single breath, at most.

Now, let’s talk about how to find and apply the elements of an effective logline pitch to your work in progress.

1. IDENTIFY YOUR PROTAGONIST (BY ARCHETYPE). Archetypes are more descriptive and harder to forget than character names. Try to identify your protagonist in no more than three words. Try several alternatives, looking for the one that sounds most intriguing. Limit yourself to archetypes, to 2-3 words at most, and don’t use any backstory elements in the description of the protagonist. The pitch is about this novel, not what your character went through in the past.

If I tell you “Hiro Hattori” has three days to solve a crime, you don’t know who or what he is. You might or might not care. But if I tell you a master ninja has to find a killer, suddenly you’re curious–because usually, the ninja IS the killer.

Your protagonist will almost always be the first thing you mention in a logline-style pitch, so open strong.

2. IDENTIFY THE ACTIVE ANTAGONIST. Who is your protagonist fighting? Again, use archetypes, not names. Sometimes, the antagonist may be implied rather than stated in the pitch. That’s ok, especially if the stakes are high. Where you have more than one antagonist (and this often happens), make a list and use the most important ones.

If you’re having trouble identifying the antagonist, ask yourself: what’s the easiest way to describe what my hero is fighting? That’s your active antagonist, and you have to either state or strongly imply its existence in your pitch.

If you don’t describe the antagonist in detail, you need to make sure you nail element #3:

3. IDENTIFY THE STAKES (AGAIN, IN ARCHETYPE IF POSSIBLE): What will happen, and who suffers, if your protagonist fails?

Your pitch MUST explain what’s at stake in your novel. Fail at that, and the listener will not care. On rare occasions, authors realize when crafting the pitch that the reason the novel isn’t working is that it has no real stakes. 

Think about the story you’ve written, and ask yourself: why must the protagonist succeed? What are the consequences–for the protagonist and others–if (s)he fails? These are the stakes, and they’re the most important thing for your pitch to convey.

4. IDENTIFY YOUR STORY’S HIGH CONCEPT. How would you describe your story in 5 words or less?

For me, it’s “Ninja detective in samurai-era Japan.” Short and to the point. My pitch never actually says those words, but the high concept informs the “vibe” of the pitch even when it doesn’t appear.

It’s the little details of the pitch that convey high concept. Find unique details in your novel. Wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, antagonist, and stakes.


Revise until you can say the entire pitch easily and in a single breath. Revising a pitch often involves a lot of painful cutting: You don’t have room for filler words that do not “earn their keep.” Generally, try to use no more than one adjective per noun, and don’t use adverbs if you can avoid it – they break the flow.

Most authors struggle with shortening pitches, mainly from the mistaken believe that the listener needs “more information.” The reality is that any more than a single breath will make your listener lose interest in your pitch.

Every novel or nonfiction work can be pitched in a single sentence. You CAN revise your pitch to a single breath. Justify each word and use the strongest words possible–remembering archetypes are stronger than names–and you can write a winning pitch for your book. 

15I22 Magellan and Weeble

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Crabs on the Reef

People often ask “what else” I have in the reef, aside from seahorses:

16D05 Porcelain Crab feeding

Any experienced reefkeeper will tell you that a reef is a little like the original Jurassic Park–we can tell you how many animals we put in the box, but not necessarily how many (or what types) are in there. In my case, it’s less that the animals are breeding unexpectedly, and more that when you work with live rock, hitchhikers happen.

I love crabs, but everything in my tank must “play nicely” with seahorses, which are uniquely susceptible to anything that pinches, bites, or stings. That said, there are a few species of crabs that work well in seahorse tanks–mainly the reef-safe, peaceful species that eat detritus rather than living foods–and I’ve made it my mission to collect as many as my reef will allow.

At present, the crab population consists of:

One Halloween Hermit named “Lazarus.” (He acquired the name because we thought he died the first time he molted, and ended up quite surprised when he emerged from the shell, alive, a few days later.)


Three emerald crabs–who have no names, because it’s difficult to tell them apart, and also because they haven’t been with me long enough to receive or deserve them. If and when they become distinguishable, either in appearance or by behavior, we’ll give them names.

Three porcelain crabs–Ripley, Small, and Alien Queen–who, though not “true crabs,” are easy to spot and smart enough to eat from the feeding tube I use with the seahorses.

16E03 porcelain crabs

Lately, Small and Alien Queen have taken up residence in one of the sea fans, while Ripley pretty much lives wherever she wants.

16E03 Porcelain Crab

I also have about two dozen tiny red-legged hermits, which inhabit shells that range in size from half an inch to an inch and a half in diameter.

16E03 hermit 2

As the hermits grow, I often trade them back to the fish store for smaller ones–a win-win situation because the larger ones are in demand by reef keepers with larger tanks (and more aggressive fish) and by the time mine grow big enough to trade, they figure out how to raid the seahorses’ feeding bowls instead of scavenging leftover food and detritus the way I want them to.

16E03 Crab in bowl

I’m always on the lookout for new or peaceful species that I can introduce to the reef, so stay tuned–there may be more additions as time goes by!

Do you like crabs? Do they freak you out? Would you consider–or have you kept–crabs as pets?

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Tōrō: Japan’s Traditional Lanterns

Traditional Japanese stone lanterns, known as tōrō, came to Japan from China as part of Buddhist temple architecture, most likely during or shortly before the Nara Period (8th century A.D.). 

16E09 Toro and Deer

Like many elements of Chinese culture adopted by Japan, the tōrō quickly took on a uniquely Japanese character. By the Heian Period (794-1185) tōrō had moved beyond the temples, becoming a popular feature of Japanese homes and streets, and also adorning Shinto shrines.

Kasuga Taisha, in Nara, has over ten thousand tōrō on and around the grounds of the shrine, including some of the oldest examples of tōrō in Japan.

16E09 Toro Kasuga

Many bear inscriptions of poetry or donors’ names:

16E09 Toro 2

Tōrō come in two primary varieties, the freestanding dai-dōrō, which may be made of metal or wood, but are commonly carved from stone (in which case, they’re technically called ishi-dōrō):

16E09 Toro

and the hanging form, tsuri-dōrō, most commonly displayed on eaves.

16E09 Dai-doro Kasuga

In their most traditional form, ishi-dōrō have five pieces, each of which corresponds to one of the natural elements.

The base or platform beneath the base is customarily square or rectangular (sometimes hexagonal, but generally with at least some straight edges), and represents the solid earth.

16E09 Large toto (deer)

Above the base, the post that supports the fire box (normally cylindrical, but sometimes carved with legs or in other geometric shapes) represents the element of water.

Not surprisingly, the fire box (commonly square, but in rare cases octagonal or hexagonal) represents fire.

16E09 Wooden Toro

The “hood” or “roof” above the fire box represents wind, and is normally either rounded, sloped or half-moon shaped, sometimes with sloping or rising corners that echo the traditional shape of Japanese roof architecture.

At the very top, the round, oblong, or onion-shaped finial represents the element of the void (sometimes referred to as “space”).

Not all tōrō possess all of these elements; lanterns which serve a primarily decorative (as opposed to religious) function may omit one or more of the standard parts, though most do contain a base, a post, and a fire box with a sloping or decorative roof.

16E09 Miyajima Toro (day)


Today, some tōrō still burn with traditional flames, while others have been outfitted with electric or battery-powered lights.

16E09 lit toro Miyajima

Regardless of the method used, their light gives a soft illumination to paths, temples, and shrines, and makes it easy to imagine Japan in the days when traditional lanterns provided a primary mode of lighting.

I love traditional tōrō, and use them often in my novels–not only as modes of illumination but also, in at least one case, as a hiding place for explosives. I have to admit, I felt a little guilty blowing up a traditional lantern…but I consoled myself slightly with the knowledge that it was an ugly tōrō to begin with.

What do you think about Japanese tōrō? Have you ever seen one lit at night?

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Never Tell Me the Odds

I often talk with authors who want to pursue publication but worry about the sometimes-overwhelming odds involved in finding an agent and a traditional publishing house. Some turn to self-publishing not because they want to self-publish, but because they’re overwhelmed by the odds.

In the immortal words of Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.”

…and don’t let them be the reason you decide on a publishing path.

Self-publishing is a fantastic option for people who want to self-publish, whose talents are a match for the process, and who want to become an author-publisher. Self-publishing isn’t a good decision for people who simply feel overwhelmed or “tired of waiting.”

As for those “overwhelming” odds…the only statistic that matters to you is binary.

Let me explain.

Either you have an agent right now, or you don’t.  Six months from now, or a year, or ten, the same will be true. Either you’ll have an agent, a publishing deal, a published book (or six, or ten) … or you won’t.

Your work in progress will be under contract, or you’ll still be waiting.

You’ll win awards, or not.

In every case, the answer is always either “Yes” or “No.”

And from today’s vantage point, it’s Shrödinger’s Odds. You absolutely, positively, cannot tell which way it’s going to fall.


The real question, then, is what are you doing now to help improve your chances of the answer coming up “Yes” instead of “No.”

Are you continuing to work, and improve your craft, with every story, manuscript, book, and blog you write?

Will you let yourself stagnate, rewriting (or worse, just querying without rewriting) the same old tired manuscript you’ve been flogging since 2005, or will you finish that project and start the next…and the next…and the next, as many times as it takes to reach your goals?

Statistics about the percentage of queries or authors that obtain representation (or publishing deals), sales figures, and all the other piles of data boil down to a binary too. What holds at the industry level breaks down entirely when you focus on one individual author, one manuscript, or one career.

Either an agent is drawn to a given manuscript and offers a contract (“yes”) or the author and/or work wasn’t right for that agent (“no”).  The same goes for every publishing house, every bookstore, and every reader.

The overall numbers are helpful, because they can help authors evaluate larger questions, like the average quality of writing offered to agents (often low) or whether an author should send out a query or manuscript that’s anything less than the absolute best, most polished work the author can produce (the answer is DON’T YOU DARE).

The problem with other people’s numbers and averages is that they tell you nothing about the status of your manuscript, whether query reads like a siren’s song, or if your agent-selection process has honed your choices to agents who might truly relate to your work. 

For that, statistics can’t help you. Other people’s success cannot act as an accurate predictor of your own.

Critique groups, conferences, and learning to make an objective analysis of not only your writing but the responses you receive from the people who read it (including agents) offer an author important signposts on the difficult road to success.

At the end of the day, it comes to this: writing is difficult.

It’s difficult before you find an agent, difficult after you’re published, and difficult forever and ever. If you want easy, do something else.

However, if writing is your path, you can’t let other people’s statistics get you down. At the end of the day, the only statistic that matters to you is binary – you succeed or fail by your own efforts–or lack thereof.

That doesn’t mean “ignore the industry standards” or “ignore the facts.”  Information helps you learn and improves your chances of success, provided you use it properly.

However, don’t let the numbers cause despair. Remember that the only statistics that matter to you are binary, and work on shifting them from the lonely 0 to the celebrated 1. 

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